Searching for Meaning in New Orleans

With an outsider’s view, I can’t tell you what New Orleans is like. The hotels are open, the restaurants are open; and the French Quarter is open. There’s a Royal Caribbean cruise ship in port. The gamblers are filling Harrah’s and the Gordon Biersch Brewery across the street is stuffed for a Saturday mid-afternoon.

But something is missing. And maybe it’s only in my head. Because I know what happened, I don’t think I could ever have as much fun here as “before.” And everytime I walk into the convention center, I visualize the TV news stories of everything left behind after Katrina. I see the people screaming for help. I see the filth left behind, the bodies and the trash in the streets. This is the tragedy that should (or should not) be mentioned. The Convention Center is mysteriously empty. Maybe it is the time of year, maybe it has always been this way between large conventions, but it adds an eerie quality to the building.

The last time I was here was on New Years Eve Weekend for the Sugar Bowl, which matched Illinois and LSU, so the streets were packed with revelers in purple and gold. Perhaps that accentuates the polarity of my visits – one of the craziest times of year with one of the craziest. I can’t be sure, and I didn’t ask the questions. There is a certain self-guilt in asking questions about “before” and “after”.

We ate a phenomenal meal of fresh seafood atop a sweet potato croquette at Le Citron Bistro. On a Saturday night, there were only two tables occupied. Chef David Baird enjoyed a digestif of Grand Marnier with us at the bar. He opened 3 years ago, and the restaurant had been gathering momentum pre-Katrina (those words again). Of course, it hasn’t been the same since. It’s doubltful most tourists would want to leave the French Quarter, especialy to venture to this small restaurant created from an abandoned 197-year old cottage and situated next to an empty lot. The attention to detail here was delightful – with perfect service and a menu that changes every few days – based on whatever is fresh and whatever new dishes the chef invents. I wonder how many more stories there are like this.

The Times-Picayune reports that somewhere between 190,000 and 230,000 people are living in New Orleans, according to various estimates. Half the people are gone. They play ads on TV in Atlanta pleading for people to come back – to a city they probably associate as much with nightmares as they do with weddings an first loves and laughter. But rents here are high. They say nothing quite works; stoplights are out daily. Traffic is horrible, but no one can explain why.

With the population change has come a demographic change. The Hispanic population here has increased greatly. I even heard the airport announcements in Spanish. Many Hispanics have arrived for the high wages. They are a large segment of the rebuilding force. They play a role in not only how the physical city will look tomorrow, but how the population may look tomorrow.

They might love it just as much now, as my New Orleans friends would attest. There is some internal compass, a place in your heart for this city, which has inspired songs and movies. They say you either get it or you don’t. And if you get it you will never want to leave. And if you do leave, you always want to come back. They say you have to leave to come back, in the way you want your lover more after you leave them. The magnetism of this city is difficult for me to comprehend, as I am, and will always be, a foreigner.

But I can see it when I drive through the lower Garden District, or down Magazine Street with its boutiques and local restaurants. New Orleanians still create any excuse for a party; the government still closes for Mardi Gras. They still look forward to fresh crawfish season in the spring and a trip to the casino on payday.

Katrina is mentioned daily here. It is impossible to escape. Some breaking news is usually above the fold on the front page of the newspaper and scattered about the inside pages also. Where has the supposed rebuilding money gone? What is the master plan for the city? Where will the next influx of rebuilding money go? It seems like not many have received these government grants. The locals talk about where this money has gone, and why their friends haven’t seen any of it.

The boarded-up shop windows on Canal Street remind us of Katrina, as do the signs advertising Katrina-devastation bus tours to tourists – tours which are frequently sold out. Personally, I have seen enough on TV, and I’m not ready to see it in person. Not now, and probably not ever.

Being here and seeing signs of a Renaissance give me hope, but it almost feels like post-bomb Bali. The signs practically beg you to come. They plead with you to enjoy yourself, which makes it a little more awkward to do so. It is as if having fun is no longer a diversion, but a requirement. So much pressure can make it exhausting to live up to such expectations. I spent money. I drank (maybe a bit much). And that’s what New Orleans expects of me.

The last time I was here, I felt I never needed to come back. Been there. Done that. Drunk college students vomiting up hurricanes in public. The smell of decaying garbage bags of trash piled along the sidewalks waiting for pickup. Too much fried seafood. Service oh so very poor. But now I feel as if I could come back here, that the disaster has opened up a human side of the city. Only time will tell whether this great American renaissance will be realized, and if I’ll be back to see it. (originally written January 2006)

Photo was taken in London. Sorry, I didn’t have one from New Orleans.

By Matthew Stone
Travel to New Orleans, Louisiana

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